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A farm labourer, with a wife and four children, and earning eleven shillings a week, was imprisoned in the county gaol for two months for the theft of a pound of butter. Soon after his release sickness entered his home, and to supply his childrens wants[89] he again yielded to temptation and stole twelve ducks eggs. For this he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude; or rather not for this theft, but because he had already incurred a severe punishment for a theft of some butter. The sentence was most perfectly lawful, but was it not perfectly unjust?Capital punishment becomes a spectacle for the majority of mankind, and a subject for compassion and abhorrence for others; the minds of the spectators are more filled with these feelings than with the wholesome terror the law pretends to inspire. But in moderate and continuing penalties the latter is the predominant feeling, because it is the only one. The limit, which the legislator should affix to the severity of penalties, appears to lie in the first signs of a feeling[173] of compassion becoming uppermost in the minds of the spectators, when they look upon the punishment rather as their own than as that of the criminal.

If we would bring to the study of Beccarias treatise the same disposition of mind with which he wrote it, we must enter upon the subject with the freest possible spirit of inquiry, and with a spirit of doubtfulness, undeterred in its research by authority however venerable, by custom however extended, or by time however long. It has been from too great reverence for the wisdom of antiquity that men in all ages have consigned their lives and properties to the limited learning and slight experience of generations which only lived for themselves and had no thought of binding posterity in the rules they thought suitable to their own times. Beccaria sounded the first note of that appeal from custom to reason in the dominion of law which has been, perhaps, the brightest feature in the history of modern times, and is still transforming the institutions of all countries.

The reader of this treatise will perceive that I have omitted all reference to a certain class of crime, which has deluged Europe with human blood; a crime which raised those fatal piles, where living human bodies served as food for the flames, and where the blind multitude sought a pleasant spectacle and a sweet harmony from the low dull groans, emitted by wretched sufferers from volumes of black smoke, the smoke of human limbs, whilst their bones and still palpitating entrails were scorched and consumed by the flames. But reasonable men will see that the place, the age, and the subject suffer me not to inquire into the nature of such a crime. It would be too long and remote from my subject to show, how a perfect uniformity of thought ought, contrary to the practice of many countries, to be a necessity in a State; how opinions, which only differ by the most subtle and imperceptible degrees, and are altogether beyond the reach of human intelligence, can[232] yet convulse society, when one of them is not legally authorised in preference to the others; and how the nature of opinions is such, that, whilst some become clearer by virtue of their conflict and opposition, (those that are true floating and surviving, but those that are false sinking to oblivion,) others again, with no inherent self-support, require to be clothed with authority and power. Too long would it be to prove, that howsoever hateful may seem the government of force over human minds, with no other triumphs to boast of but dissimulation and debasement, and howsoever contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and fraternity, commanded alike by reason and the authority we most venerate, it is yet necessary and indispensable. All this should be taken as clearly proved and conformable to the true interests of humanity, if there be anyone who, with recognised authority, acts accordingly. I speak only of crimes that spring from the nature of humanity and the social compact; not of sins, of which even the temporal punishments should be regulated by other principles than those of a narrow philosophy.The object of examining an accused man is the ascertainment of truth. But if this truth is difficult to discover from a mans air, demeanour, or countenance, even when he is quiet, much more difficult will it be to discover from a man upon whose face all the signs, whereby most men, sometimes in spite of themselves, express the truth, are distorted by pain. Every violent action confuses and causes to disappear those trifling differences between objects, by which one may sometimes distinguish the true from the false.

But punishment bears much the same relation to crime in the country at large that it does in the metropolis. Let one year be taken as a fair sample of all. The total number of indictable offences of all kinds reported to the police in 1877-8 was 54,065. For these offences only 24,062 persons were apprehended. Of these latter only 16,820 were held to bail or committed for trial; and of these again 12,473 were convicted and punished.[52] So that, though the proportion of convictions to the number of prisoners who come to trial is about 75 per cent., the proportion of convictions, that is, of punishments, to the number of crimes committed is so low as 23 per cent. Of the 54,065 crimes reported to the police in one year 41,592 were actually committed with impunity; and[95] thus the proportion which successful crime of all sorts bears to unsuccessful is rather more than as four to one.[53] So that there is evident truth in what a good authority has said: Few offences comparatively are followed by detection and punishment, and with a moderate degree of cunning an offender may generally go on for a long time with but feeble checks, if not complete impunity.[54]In order that a punishment may attain its object, it is enough if the evil of the punishment exceeds the advantage of the crime, and in this excess of evil the certainty of punishment and the loss of the possible advantage from the crime ought to be considered as part; all beyond this is superfluous and consequently tyrannical. Men regulate their conduct by the reiterated impression of evils they know, not by reason of evils they ignore. Given two nations, in one of which, in the scale of punishments proportioned[167] to the scale of crimes, the severest penalty is perpetual servitude, and in the other the wheel; I say that the former will have as great a dread of its severest punishment as the latter will have; and if there be any reason for transporting to the former country the greater penalties of the other, the same reasoning will serve for increasing still more the penalties of this latter country, passing imperceptibly from the wheel to the slowest and most elaborate tortures, nay, even to the last refinements of that science which tyrants understand only too well.

A man accused of a crime, imprisoned and acquitted, ought to bear no mark of disgrace. How many Romans, accused of the gravest crimes and then found innocent, were reverenced by the people and honoured with magisterial positions! For what reason, then, is the lot of a man innocently accused so different in our own times? Because, in the criminal system now in vogue, the idea of force and might is stronger in mens minds than the idea of justice; because accused and convicted are thrown in confusion into the same dungeon; because imprisonment is rather a mans punishment than his mere custody; and because the two forces which should be united are separated from[134] one another, namely, the internal force, which protects the laws, and the external force, which defends the throne and the nation. Were they united, the former, through the common sanction of the laws, would possess in addition a judicial capacity, although independent of that possessed by the supreme judicial power; and the glory that accompanies the pomp and ceremony of a military body would remove the infamy, which, like all popular sentiments, is more attached to the manner than the thing, as is proved by the fact that military prisons are not regarded in public estimation as so disgraceful as civil ones. There still remain among our people, in their customs and in their laws (always a hundred years, in point of merit, in arrear of the actual enlightenment of a nation), there still remain, I say, the savage impressions and fierce ideas of our ancestors of the North.By the same rule, in the case of theft, the value of the thing stolen, with some equivalent for the trouble of its recovery, taken from the offender or made a lien on his earnings, appears to be all that justice can demand. Sir Samuel Romilly, himself second to none as a lawyer, wrote seventy years ago: If the restitution of the property stolen, and only a few weeks or even but a few days imprisonment were the unavoidable consequence of theft, no theft would ever be committed. Yet the following sentences are taken[85] at random from authentic English sources: three months imprisonment for stealing a pipe, six months for stealing a penny, a twelvemonth for stealing an umbrella, five years penal servitude for stealing some stamps from a letter, seven years for stealing twopence. In such cases the principle of vindictiveness exceeds the limits of necessity, and therefore of justice; whilst the law loses all its dignity as the expression of unimpassioned resentment.Paley, of course, defended the thing he found established; nor, considering the system he had to defend, did he state the case for it without ingenuity. He had, indeed, nothing to add to what Blackstone had said regarding punishment, namely, that it was inflicted, not in proportion to the real guilt of an offence, but in proportion to its facility of commission and difficulty of detection. To steal from a shop was not more criminal than to steal from a house, but, as it was more difficult to detect, it was more severely punished. Sheep, horses, and cloth on bleaching-grounds were more exposed to thieves than other kinds of property; therefore their theft required a stronger deterrent penalty.

The death of a citizen can only be deemed necessary for two reasons. The first is when, though deprived of his personal freedom, he has still such connections and power as threaten the national security; when his existence is capable of producing a dangerous revolution in the established form of government. The death of a citizen becomes then necessary when the nation is recovering or losing its liberty, or in a time of anarchy, when confusion takes the place of laws; but in times when the laws hold undisturbed sway, when the form of government corresponds with the wishes of a united nation, and is defended internally and externally by force, and by opinion which is perhaps even stronger than force, where the supreme power rests only with the real sovereign, and riches serve to purchase pleasures but not places, I see no necessity for destroying a citizen, except when his death might be the real and only restraint for diverting others from committing crimes; this latter[171] case constituting the second reason for which one may believe capital punishment to be both just and necessary.There is a remarkable contradiction between the civil laws, which set so jealous and supreme a guard upon individual life and property, and the laws of so-called honour, which set opinion above everything. This word honour is one of those that have served as the basis for long and brilliant argumentations, without any fixed or permanent idea being attached to it. How miserable is the condition of human minds, more distinctly cognisant of the remotest and least important ideas about the movements of the heavenly bodies, than of those near and important moral notions, which are ever fluctuating and confused, according as the winds of passion impel them and a well-guided ignorance receives and transmits them! But the seeming paradox will vanish, if one considers, that, as objects become confused when too near the eyes, so the too great propinquity of moral ideas easily causes the numerous simple ideas which compose them to become blended together, to the confusion of those clear lines of demarcation demanded by the geometrical spirit, which would fain measure exactly the phenomena of human sensibility. And the wonder will vanish altogether from the impartial student of human affairs, who will suspect that so great a moral machinery and so many restraints are perchance not needed, in order to render men happy and secure.

In such a zigzag path has our penal legislation been feeling, and is still feeling, its way, with evident misgiving of that principle of repression, as false as it is old, that an increase of crime can only be met by an increase of punishment.CHAPTER XVI. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.

What should men think when they see wise magistrates and grave priests of justice with calm indifference causing a criminal to be dragged by their slow procedure to death; or when they see a judge, whilst a miserable wretch in the convulsions of his last agonies is awaiting the fatal blow, pass away[178] coldly and unfeelingly, perhaps even with a secret satisfaction in his authority, to enjoy the comforts and pleasures of life? Ah they will say, these laws are but the pretexts of force, and the studied cruel formalities of justice are but a conventional language, used for the purpose of immolating us with greater safety, like victims destined in sacrifice to the insatiable idol of tyranny. That assassination which they preach to us as so terrible a misdeed we see nevertheless employed by them without either scruple or passion. Let us profit by the example. A violent death seemed to us a terrible thing in the descriptions of it that were made to us, but we see it is a matter of a moment. How much less terrible will it be for a man who, not expecting it, is spared all that there is of painful in it.



CHAPTER XXII. OF PROSCRIPTION.In the second place, a large proportion of the habitual criminal class is formed of weak-minded or imbecile persons, notorious for the repeated commission of petty thefts, crimes of violence and passion, and confessed to be not amenable to the ordinary influences of self-interest or fear of punishment.[57] It is now proposed to separate this class of prisoners from others; but is punishment operative on them at all? Is not their proper place an asylum?



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